A Giant Named Pablo Gonzalez Casanova

Subcomandante Marcos with Pablo González Casanova in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, December 13, 2007. Photo Víctor Camacho

Luis Hernández Navarro

For years, every night, before sleeping, researcher Pablo González Casanova read poetry or plays. From the time that he was young, as an inheritance from his father, he memorized poems. With them, he fed his dreams and made a counterpoint to the social science concepts he worked on during the day. 

From this mixture emerged an original and powerful language to name the world, in which the theoretical arsenal of diverse humanities, the most outstanding works of universal literature, language of mathematics, and the infinite richness of life itself were creatively mixed. Like Carl Marx in Das Kapital, he used mathematics —the goddess of the sciences— as a method of reasoning, and later, as a tool  to wrestle with the possible and the impossible.

–Don Pablo: How do you work? How do your intellectual inquiries arise? How do you elaborate them? — I asked him one morning, in the middle of a long interview in his cubicle in the Institute of Social Research at UNAM, intrigued by his reflections on the confusion of the peoples or the history of the use of lies in academia as a form of mystification.

Smiling, he explained: I have a very bad memory, though my former secretary used to tell me that I have a good memory when I feel like it, and for everything else I have a bad memory. She was probably right. It is hard for me to remember people’s names. But my associative memory is strong. This is what allows me to make connections, and moreover, it corresponds to my long-standing training.

Then he added: “The moment in which things occur to me is when I am shaving. It is in the morning that I begin to make connections that seem attractive to me to keep thinking about them. It corresponds with processes of information that come from distinct sources and all of a sudden come together. This is the most frequent, but not the only moment.”

—It makes sense that you are always well-shaven— I responded, between his cackles.

Author of 24 books, and coordinator, editor or director of another 32, in addition to countless academic articles, his work shows that these mornings in front of the mirror, with razor in hand, were truly fruitful. 

He never joined a political party, although when he studied his post-doc in Paris, he entertained the idea of joining the ranks of the French Communist Party. A man of ideas, but also of action, he navigated his life in the turbulent waters of the left without capsizing in them, he defined himself as an organic intellectual of the university. In Latin America —he said— the university fulfills an extraordinary role. So much so, that the Cuban 26th of July, to a great extent, came out of the university.

With Democracy in Mexico, Don Pablo invented a new way of understanding and studying the country. As Lorenzo Meyer has pointed out, the book is the first major general study of the contemporary political system by a Mexican, from a Mexican academic perspective. The work placed an agenda of investigation and a methodology to know the country at the center of the national debate. 

It launched areas of investigation and reflection about the national reality that are relevant to this day, and established a key moment in the development of sociology: that of the full maturity of the social sciences and the end of the monopolies of foreign studies about the country.

When the work was published Carlos Madrazo was the president of the PRI. In it González Casanova, integrated, with great imagination, United States sociology with Marxism (whose essence, according to him, was the theory of exploitation), history and statistics. He reflected creatively on marginalism, internal colonialism, and dual societies to analyze the relationship between modernization and democracy, and between economics and politics. He concluded that the lack of democracy produced by exploitation and internal colonialism prevented the country from moving toward representative democracy and development. 

Those same theoretical tools, that he continued developing throughout his academic life, served to analyze South America and the Caribbean in another way. They were a key tributary to the flowering of Latin American sociology, which, as Don Pablo told Claudio Albertani, is one of the most original thoughts of our time, not only in the academic but also in the political and revolutionary fields.

Alongside thinkers like Immanuel Wallerstein, Samir Amin and François Houtart, Don Pablo too, dedicated himself to seeing from below, to building appropriate instruments to read societies through the eyes of the oppressed. His work made it possible to to put together the theoretical jigsaw puzzle to understand other-worldism and the new national liberation struggles in Asia and Africa.

Sin embargo, no obstante su enorme peso intelectual, González Casanova desarrolló una extraordinaria capacidad para escuchar con sencillez y paciencia a la gente más sencilla. Y cosechó algo de lo que muy pocos intelectuales pueden jactarse: hablar a una abigarrada masa de dirigentes sociales y políticos pertenecientes a las más diversas organizaciones, y lograr que lo escuchen en silencio y con interés.

Convinced of the need for an independent press, he contributed time, energy and dedication to the founding of La Jornada. “I remember in my dreams,” he wrote, “that night when several friends arrived. More than my memory I was awakened by their dismay. They had just resigned from a newspaper where it was becoming increasingly difficult to work… When they told me of their resignation, I remember that I said to them with a certain irresponsibility: ‘Why don’t we found another one? It was one of those youthful displays that sometimes have real consequences. This one did, thanks to the fact that Carlos Payán and Carmen Lira were among the founders.”

As night fell on February 29, 1984, more than 5,000 people gathered in a hall of the Hotel de México. It was the public launching of the project to found La Jornada. Don Pablo took the floor. Because we are optimists we fight. Because we have hope in a destiny we are critical, he said. And he concluded amidst a long ovation: We have decided to found a national society, which will carry out its work in the written press. The first task will be to found a daily newspaper.

Since then, a close relationship was forged between the media and the scholar. His affection and admiration for Carmen Lira and La Jornada remained intact over the years.

Always committed to the struggle for democracy, independence and socialism, Don Pablo made the defense of the Cuban revolution and the vindication of José Martí’s thought one of the great causes of his life.

It was not the only one. Another was the struggle of the originary peoples and Zapatismo. In 2017, Subcomandante Galeano described him as a man of critical and independent thought, who is never told what to say or how to think, but who is always on the side of the peoples. For that reason, he explained, in some rebel communities he is known as Pablo Contreras.

And at the climax of that relationship, on April 21, 2018, González Casanova, 96 years old at the time, became Comandante Pablo Contreras of the CCRI-EZLN. To be a Zapatista,” explained Comandante Tacho, “you have to work and he has worked for the life of our peoples. He has not tired, he has not sold out, he has not given up.”

When, in 2018, at the presentation of one of his books Don Pablo was asked to share his recipe for reaching 96 with such intellectual strength, he replied, Fighting and loving. Participate. We are facing an unprecedented period in the history of humanity. Our struggle is no longer just for freedom, justice and democracy, it is in fact for life itself.

Faithful to the cause of the wretched of the earth, Pablo González Casanova explained that what is new in politics is not to be moderate, leftist or ultra. What is new is consistency. If there was one thing that the giant known as Don Pablo was throughout his life, it was to be a consistent man.

Originally published in the very paper that Don Pablo helped to found, La Jornada, on April 19th, 2023. English interpretation by Schools for Chiapas.

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